- Kawhi Leonard sat out of a high-profile, nationally televised game to rest, once again raising the issue of when NBA players should take a night off.
- Though science backs resting players and NBA teams are adopting “load management,” there are critics who argue it’s bad for the game and business.
- Resting in the NBA won’t go away any time soon because of the 82-game schedule. There have been calls to reduce the schedule, but doing so would also mean reducing revenue.
- There are greater concerns about the state of youth basketball, which is taking an increased physical toll on young athletes, meaning load management won’t simply be for veteran players.
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The NBA world is once again in an uproar over when players should rest.
The topic reared its head this week, as Kawhi Leonard sat out a high-profile, nationally televised game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.
The game was the first night of a back-to-back for the Clippers. Leonard also sat out the first night of a back-to-back the previous week.
Rest has been a hot-button issue in the NBA for years. In 2012, the NBA fined the San Antonio Spurs for sending home their star players without proper notice before a high-profile game against the Miami Heat. In 2017, the issue was inflamed when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers sat their star players for nationally televised games in back-to-back weeks.
Leonard has been the most cautious player in the NBA with his body. Last season, the Toronto Raptors coined the term “load management,” resting Leonard for 22 games as he worked his way back from the quad injury that cost him all but nine games the year before. Leonard then topped the NBA in minutes in the playoffs and led the Raptors to a championship. Many believed the Raptors’ plan was a success.
Leonard’s rest day drew familiar criticism on Wednesday. ESPN’s Doris Burke said it was “ridiculous” that Leonard would sit out of a high-profile game so early in the season. She said the NBA has a problem on its hands.
Others called the decision unfair to fans who were attending the game and TV networks paying for the game. As Burke noted, NBA TV ratings were down last year. Leonard, one of the league’s biggest stars, sitting out a marquee game on national TV would not help.
Others defended Leonard and the Clippers. The NBA on Wednesday said the Clippers informed the league of the decision to sit Leonard and that Leonard qualified as an injured player (more on that later).
Many argued that Toronto’s success last season was proof that Leonard should stick to his plan and more teams should adopt it.
—Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 6, 2019
—Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) November 7, 2019
—Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) November 6, 2019
John Hollinger, a former executive with the Memphis Grizzlies, wrote on The Athletic that teams have “grudgingly” adopted load management because “the evidence from medical and training staffs became overwhelming that it was a better way to manage a basketball team.”
And though the data backs up that it’s smart, it’s unlikely to make the issue go away.
When and what type of rest is allowed?
After defending the Clippers’ decision to rest Leonard on Wednesday, the league then punished them on Thursday, fining the Clippers $50,000 for “inconsistent” statements regarding Leonard’s health. The fine came after head coach Doc Rivers said Leonard “feels great” and shot down the idea of Leonard dealing with an injury. The NBA said it determined Leonard was dealing with an injury, saying Leonard has “an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee” and would be sitting out back-to-backs.
The fine raises the issue about when and what type of rest is okay.
The NBA does make a distinction. There are designations for a player resting for rest’s sake or a player resting for an injury or to prevent re-injury.
Teams (and the NBA itself) don’t have much of a say in that distinction. As The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo noted, teams are trying to be “player-first” in an increasingly player-driven league. Even if a team tried to shoot down a player looking to rest, that player could, in turn, say they are dealing with an injury and can’t play. Who is to tell a player how he feels? Denying players rest only worsens relationships.
ESPN’s Rachel Nichols argued on “The Jump” that the league shouldn’t allow players to simply rest if they’re healthy. Nichols argued, “Because if it’s just rest, then why are we having an 82-game se